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Finding the Lost Dutchman: Material Rhetoric and Vernacular Histories, by Jordan Loveridge


A few dozen miles east of Mesa, Arizona, stationed along an almost imperceptibly curving road, stands a reconstruction of the mining town of Goldfield. From a distance, rising above saguaros and silhouetted against the Superstition Mountains, stands a model wooden water tower. As I drive closer to the town, other buildings come into sight: a barn, a saloon, a general store. A wooden sign hangs over the entrance: I have arrived in the town of Goldfield. I keep driving, however, as Goldfield is not my destination, nor my concern for now (and even later, only tangentially). Instead, I continue down the road for another few minutes until I see a low wooden building, surrounded by rusting and decaying mine carts, topped with a large painted sign. “Bluebird Mine Gift Shop, Goldfield Mining District, est 1893,” the sign claims. Another sign proudly declares, “This is a historical stop.” Another claims the building is a museum. Another offers me beer. The building, quite clearly, suffers from an identity crisis. Inside and out, it is a home primarily for other objects. Derelict mining equipment sits outside near a dummy hanging from a noose; inside, newspaper clippings are pinned to the walls and dozens of books, all on a single topic, are placed haphazardly on shelves. They are all about the Lost Dutchman.

The Romans believed that each place was inhabited by a sort of guardian spirit that represented the location: the “genius loci” of the place. If one were to embody the genius loci of the Bluebird, it would certainly take on some sort of personification of the Lost Dutchman’s mine. And more likely than not, that personification would bear the marks of much violence. There are various recollections of the legend, the earliest going back to 1840. This version of the story suggests that the mine was found by a young Mexican boy, fleeing from an angry father, who was later killed by “the ranchero’s Indian slaves” (“Lost Dutchman’s Mine” 185). The father exploited the slaves further to mine the ore, but Apaches supposedly killed both the father and slaves before they could enjoy the profits. However, legend has it that three Mexican workers somehow managed to survive the attack. Upon arriving in the nearest town, the miners shared the location of the mine with Jacob Waltz, also known as “Snowbeard”. After revealing the location, the miners were killed by Waltz, who set out to find the mine and claim the gold for himself. Rumors circulated that the old Dutchman would sometimes spend gold dust in nearby Goldfield or Phoenix, but no one ever learned where he found it. Waltz died in 1892, having never revealed the location of the mine. The town of Goldfield, now abandoned, was constructed in response to earlier rumors of gold veins in the mountains, and the new tale of a lost mine only served to increase the population of the town. For more than one hundred years, people have continued to search for the mine (“Treasure Lore” 79-9). Even within the last few years, several treasure hunters have gone missing or died while looking for the Lost Dutchman’s treasure.

Maintained by Louis, the museum curator and owner, the Bluebird—a roadside shop that doubles as local history and mining museum—concerns itself primarily with the myth of the Lost Dutchman mine, and uses this legend to various ends. The resulting structure is both a place of private and public remembering, which reflects complex associations between Western regional culture and expression. Through a collection of artefacts, books, maps and newspapers, the Bluebird Mine Museum attempts to accomplish two things. First, to serve as a rhetorical challenge to the authenticity of the surrounding structures, most of which have been commodified to appeal to visiting tourists in ways that the Bluebird Mine Museum has not. While both the ghost town of Goldfield and the Bluebird deploy Western regional rhetorical topoi, the aim of each is quite different. In contrast to the reconstructed ghost town of Goldfield (a mile or so from the Bluebird Mine Museum and the original town of Goldfield) the Bluebird Mine Museum explicitly makes an effort to cultivate a rhetorical image that avoids the sterile feel of the nearby tourist attractions. This is accomplished primarily through the association of the “American West” with ideas of adventure, discovery and violence (Prince 120). The goal of deploying these topoi is multi-faceted—critiquing the historicity of the reconstructed town of Goldfield, as well as the attraction of visitors to the Bluebird.

The second goal of the Bluebird Mine is to cultivate an association with the mythos of the Lost Dutchman and the mine. This is again accomplished through the collection and display of artefacts pertinent to the mine’s history and mythology. The rhetorical interactions of these two places captures a unique difficulty that Western frontier regions (and their residents) face: how does one preserve a sense of history without buying into a culturally constructed narrative about what “The West” is? Can an unofficial cultural museum, curated by the proprietor Louis and a few other amateur enthusiasts, such as the Bluebird offer a legitimate counter-narrative to the historical narrative developed at official sites of memory, such as the nearby state park or tourist structures? Addressing these questions is important, as it represents a situation in which what John Bodnar terms “vernacular memory” attempts to operate independently of (or in this case, to subvert) an aspect of public remembering (14). Although Bodnar argues that vernacular culture “represents an array of specialized interests,” in contrast with the “official” culture of “dogmatic formalism” (13-14) I believe that this distinction is too arbitrary. Rather, official and vernacular cultures occupy opposing positions on a continuum, with individual cultures being more or less vernacular (or official) than another. In other words, two cultures, both seemingly vernacular, may very well be quite different in their level of officialism when compared to one another, particularly at the regional, rather than national level. This becomes apparent when comparing the Bluebird and the reconstructed town of Goldfield.

The differing rhetorics and cultures of the Bluebird and nearby ghost town are closely tied to material objects. Carol Blair suggested in 2001 that “it seems no longer necessary to argue for the rhetorical character of material objects,” but this statement has, perhaps, been proven false (273). More recently, scholars such as Marback and Brown have noted the continued difficulties of material and object based rhetoric. Specifically, it becomes clear from their scholarship that the importance and theoretical basis of material rhetoric is not yet relevant to a wider audience, even if it is well-developed in specialized fields. As Marback states, “objects cannot mean for us, they cannot even be for us as objects, except in and through our discursive and institutional orderings of them and ourselves” (56). Objects take on meaning when they are manipulated—and this manipulation makes them quite clearly rhetorical. Studying these manipulations allows for a greater understanding of the material influences on rhetorical expression.

This is especially important in the case of the Bluebird, as it functions largely as a repository and display area for things; it claims as part of its complex identity the role of “museum.” Museums in particular are concerned with “anthropological encounters and social networks [that lead] to the preservation of specific objects and to their metonymic value” as well as how “objects mediate our sense of ourselves (as individuals and as collectivities) and our sense of others” (Brown 185-87). The act of collection and cataloging has a function beyond the hoarding and ordering of information; in doing so, the collector reaffirms an aspect of both individual and collective identity as well as their relation to other viewers and interested parties. The objects and their ordering can thus both critique an element of society while affirming a specific identity constructed through remembering as an act performed among others (Ono and Sloop; Casey). If we are to seriously consider Burke’s conclusion that rhetoric is an act of identification, then the rhetorical function of gathering and ordering things is certainly apparent in the context of the Bluebird. It is primarily in these two ways that I will consider the rhetoric of material things: as enacted in our relationships and as methods of establishing identity.

The Bluebird deploys material objects to enact a regional rhetoric, which largely depends on topoi. A topos, literally a place to find things, serves as the starting point, or commonplace of argument and invention, allowing a productive series of codes and tropes to structure a discourse: “Topos is like a cauldron where form and substance are brought together” (Miller 136). But what might this cauldron—this topos—look like when we consider a specifically Western regional rhetoric? Fulmer and Kell have argued that the defining feature of Western regional rhetoric is a “spirit of adventure” (229). The Bluebird deploys several rhetorical moves that take advantage of a regional rhetoric built on this topos, specifically acts of violence and ideals of place. The Bluebird is intimately tied with stories of violence and greed, and these stories contribute to and draw from a Western regional rhetoric that is based in images of “men with guns” (Prince 120). Prince uses this phrase to indicate the ever-present relationship of violence with the people and the landscape of “The West.” Novels, movies and countless other media help to tell the dominant story of the West as one that “by its nature, creates dialogue about violence, about what violence is, who may use it, and when” (Prince 120). Drawing from this rich commonplace, the Bluebird also helps to contribute to the stereotypical regionalism of the West by romanticizing acts of violence and power; in both frameworks, the primary goal of the individual is to adventure and discover, but this process is inevitably tied up with acts of aggression. Beyond romanticizing violence, the stereotypical regional rhetoric of the West also romanticizes places. The Lost Dutchman’s mine simultaneously represents and contests many of the values and topoi associated with the West. The story of the mine highlights the greed of humanity, the mistreatment of Native Americans and Mexican workers, and questions the violence sometimes celebrated in popular culture. Yet, these topoi often fail to progress beyond commonplace understandings of what the “The West” is, a point I will return to later in this essay.

The aforementioned topoi help to establish the Bluebird Mine Museum as a site of personal and public remembering in association with other regional sites. As previously mentioned, the Bluebird cultivates a close association with the reconstructed town of Goldfield. It does so by asserting the claim that the Bluebird is the original site of the town, drawing attention to the de-centered nature of regional rhetorics. In Rice’s conception of the term, “regional” refers to a network of related sites, not to a single place (206). The Bluebird is quite explicit in its networking, linking the physical location of the gift shop with the mythic Lost Dutchman’s mine and the reconstructed ghost town of Goldfield. The association of the Bluebird with regional rhetorics and the complication of those regional commonplaces leads to a productive area for further analysis and forms the bulk of the forthcoming rhetorical analysis of the Bluebird.

Thus far, I have explained how the Bluebird operates through visual and material rhetoric, and have explored how these choices enact and reify a particular version of Western regional identity: a rhetoric that attempts to contrast itself with the relatively more “official” narrative of the reconstructed town of Goldfield. I will now move on to consider how the Bluebird functions as a site of personal and public remembering. Casey, Blair, Dickinson and Ott, have explored the rhetorical connection between place and remembering. Edward Casey distinguishes between different acts of remembering based on the relative positioning of the individual in the act of remembrance. Thus, he defines categories ranging from individual, social, collective and public memory. In each case, the difference is in the relation of the individual to the group in terms of remembering.

The Bluebird fulfils a deeply personal/individual memory function while also preserving events and recollections of history in vernacular memory. Casey notes that we “remember by way of being reminded” (21). In order to be reminded, memory aids must be constructed, or we must reminisce about an event with other people. The rememberer recognizes the “social power of material things without reducing them… to being only vehicles of meaning” (Keane 411). The object becomes a point of reference not only for the recollection of the event but for the recalling of that event with another person. Individually, the various archival materials stored in the Bluebird interconnect visitors via their recollection of regional history and the myth of the mine. Consider the role of the Bluebird as a museum, which is primarily enacted through a collection of newspapers, books and documents related to the Lost Dutchman mine, as well as more mundane objects such as carts, picks and shovels. Alone, these items are capable of assisting viewers in recalling and understanding historical information, but it is only in conversation with others that the knowledge and expertise of the gatherer becomes acknowledged. The preservation of artefacts clearly speaks to a desire to make them (and the stories they represent) culturally relevant in the minds of others. They are embodiments of a vernacular memory shared by Louis and several others enthusiasts in the area, as well as a means of sharing these memories with others. The objects are important for the establishing of vernacular memory and identity.

The Bluebird seeks to elicit the public remembrance of a variety of events, including but not limited to the vernacular history of Arizona, especially as it pertains to mining, the story and myth of the Lost Dutchman’s mine, and also the history of the now-abandoned town of Goldfield and its tourist-centered historical reconstruction. Several collections of objects and installations have clear messages related to the history of the town of Goldfield. This is evident even from the exterior of the building. The physical structure of the Bluebird gift shop itself is unremarkable. A low, wooden framed building is painted red and covered in various signs, most of them advertising commodities available within the shop, such as beer, burgers and bait. A wooden lattice blocks views from the parking lot, but upon entering the covered area, various artefacts become visible. A toilet seat hangs on the lattice, with painted letters telling visitors that the shop is open. A lazy and dusty dog lounges near the front door. To the right, there is a worn wooden fence that separates viewers from what is supposedly the original Bluebird Mine shaft. A dummy dressed in overalls hangs from a noose near the shaft. Plastered to the walls are aged maps and surveying charts showing the topography of the area and the construction of settlements during different times. Rusted mining equipment such as carts and shovels are arranged around the perimeter of the fence. Many of these carts have messages painted on them, and nearly all assert that the Bluebird mine is “historical.” The same is true for the other signs on the exterior of the shop; some mention the Lost Dutchman’s mine, others beer and other groceries. The overall impression is that the exterior of the Bluebird attempts to accomplish two things: first, it utilizes images of violence and adventure to attract potential rememberers to the museum-like interior. Second, the maps, charts and newspapers gathered around the exterior seek to network the Bluebird with other sites (both physical and mythic) in order to challenge historical narratives and to place the Bluebird in conversation with spaces representing desirable Western topoi. Indeed, many of the elements of the Bluebird are rhetorically complex and accomplish both tasks simultaneously.

The most obvious image of violence that the Bluebird’s exterior deploys is located to the right of the main entrance. Behind a barn wood fence, obscured slightly by a large saguaro cactus, a roughly constructed gallows can be seen. Hanging from the top of the gallows is a dummy dressed in khaki pants, a plaid shirt and a large brown hat. Realistic facial features can be seen, but the hat covers eyes that the dummy may or may not possess. Like much of the Bluebird, the gallows is also covered in hand-painted signs. The first reads “two steps to heaven, one step to hell,” a clear reference to the process of climbing the gallows and the inevitable drop. The remaining signs conflict in their messages. One asserts that the dummy is an “unknown miner, he drank the water.” The second states, “investors beware (this) is what happed [sic] to the last one.” Closer to the viewer, on the other side of the fence that separates the parking lot from the constructed gallows, are signs that explain the history of Goldfield and the settlement of the area already inhabited by Native Americans and Mexican settlers, by European Americans. Included in this history is a series of failed attempts by investors and profiteers to extract gold from mine shafts in the area.

The message to take away from these signs, the gallows and dummy, as well as their relation to one another is clear and twofold. First, the signs and dummy associate themselves with the myth of the Dutchman’s mine by representing the Western topos of adventure as one fraught with danger, and thereby drawing on another Western topos, violence. Connecting the Bluebird with these topoi both increases the appeal of the site to passers-by and attempts to draw attention to the historical counter-narrative offered by the place and the artefacts ordered there. The gallows warns that both exploration and profiteering will be met with physical harm or death. The tacit threat of poisoned or unsafe water discourages tourists from looking for the mine, while at the same time adding to the allure and appeal of the Lost Dutchman myth. By constructing a narrative of violence and danger around the enterprise of prospecting, the Bluebird is able to draw on regional rhetoric and Western topoi to present itself as a desirable tourist attraction, which thereby facilitates public remembering. The sign warning that investors will be hung both hints at the relationship between profiteering/prospecting, the myth of the Dutchman’s Mine, and the reconstructed ghost town of Goldfield (which was built primarily as means to seek profit). Each is tied up with the idea of investment, and the dummy installation asserts a clear connection between investment and the threat of violence. Undertaking a mining operation or an exploration searching for the Dutchman’s Mine requires substantial capital. The Dutchman’s Mine itself is surrounded by myths of greedy investors who always needed to extract more funds from the mine: the cruel ranchero, Jacob Waltz, and many others. They were never content with the profit they already stood to make. In this way, the installation connects the Bluebird with the Western topoi of exploration, adventure and greed. The violent image of the hanged man questions and problematizes both historical and current events.

The connections between the dummy installation and the reconstructed town of Goldfield are perhaps more difficult to ascertain. At first glance, the reconstructed ghost town appears to be a place to learn about the regional history of the area through historical reconstruction. Indeed, the sign seen from the side of the road boasts that the site is Goldfield itself. Past the gates, visitors may find saloons, a wooden water tower, “a brothel, bakery, leather works, a jail, livery, and more. The authentic looking street is filled with people in period costume, horses and wagons, and sometimes authentic gunfighter presentations” (Weiser). Despite the questionable authenticity of “gunfighter presentations” the town looks real enough; moreover, it is clean and boasts a museum that seems to possess more authority than the rather confused (and dirty) Bluebird museum. However, it is not until one looks into the history of town that the connection and the purpose of the Bluebird’s regional networking becomes clear. As Weiser states, the reconstructed town was moved away from the original site in order to suit the needs of the investor sponsoring the reconstruction:

In 1966, Robert F. “Bob” Schoose, a long time ghost town, mining, and treasure-hunting enthusiast made his first trip to the Superstition Mountains and instantly fell in love with the area. He moved to Mesa, Arizona in 1970 and soon began to dream of owning his own ghost town. He had heard of the old site of Goldfield, but upon inspection, he found little left other than a few foundations and rambling shacks. He and his wife, Lou Ann, then located another five-acre site that was once the location of the Goldfield Mill and decided with [sic] to rebuild the old town. (Weiser)

The Goldfield ghost town, by its own admission, is a reconstruction of a real town built on a different site, funded by an investor with enthusiasm for ghost towns and mining. Unlike the Bluebird, the Goldfield ghost town is not the product of individual passion and lived experience; while the description of the town on its website notes that Schoose is “an enthusiast,” the primary motivation of the reconstruction project is monetary, and Schoose did not grow up in the area (Weiser). It is a reconstruction that attempts to present a narrative about the history of the West with no real regard for the importance of place. Rather it was built with profitability in mind. As Wesier writes, original site of Goldfield was not acquired due to the presence of “rambling shacks” and the cost associated with the location. So, rather than embrace the history of a town that already existed, the reconstruction simply moved a mile or two down the road and constructed a new town, with little mind toward reproducing the town layout or relationship to the surrounding landscape. It is a case of an investor entering an area and exploiting local history, myth and places in order to produce a profitable enterprise with little regard for historical fact.

In many ways, this situation parallels what Bodnar describes in Remaking America: vernacular history is appropriated by an “official” version of events that is more concerned with economics than identity or history (24). While Bodnar is primarily concerned with how individuals appropriated vernacular culture in the name of nationalistic public memory, there are many parallels on the regional level as well. As I described previously, the Goldfield reconstruction and the Bluebird represent two seemingly vernacular histories: however, in reality, the Goldfield reconstruction is far more beholden to the profit-driven public figures that Bodnar describes than the Bluebird. The enactment of the Goldfield ghost town’s regional rhetoric is not geared toward establishing a vernacular identity, as is the Bluebird’s rhetoric, but rather toward economic gain. The Bluebird, through its various objects and installations, attempts to call attention to the reconstruction’s appropriation of vernacular culture and critique it accordingly. The hanged man, combined with other images displayed prominently on the outside of the Bluebird, seek to delegitimize the reconstructed ghost town by revealing and countering the unauthentic nature of the site and the desire for profit that motivated its construction. The space uses this narrative not only to reduce the credibility of the nearby reconstruction, but also to diminish the value of its profit-driven interpretation of history.

Unfortunately, the vernacular interpretation of history found in the Bluebird is ultimately overshadowed by capitalistic forces. Given the lack of funding available for vernacular museums, it does not seem surprising that Louis and others must make room for the commercial interests in what is otherwise a space for cultivating vernacular cultural identity. However, this fact also speaks clearly to the role of finance in the construction of regional public memory. Without a governmental or other official body to delegate funds for the preservation of sites such as Goldfield, public memory can easily be rewritten and reshaped by private actors little invested in regional identity or local history. By reshaping local vernacular culture, history, place and memory can be appropriated for commercial interests. This is true for a variety of regional locations, including the cultural sites of many native peoples, in addition to more modern site of vernacular memory such as the Bluebird. While the Bluebird may have more claims to historical fact, the reconstructed town of Goldfield is far more financially viable and far more attractive to visitors and tourists. For this reason, it exerts more influence and develops a seemingly more credible ethos in the surrounding area than the Bluebird does, thus perpetuating its own successful alternative to regional vernacular history. While both the Bluebird and the reconstructed town deploy topoi central to our cultural imagining of “The West,” the reconstruction does so in a way that is more appealing to visiting consumers. For these reasons, the assertion that the reconstruction is on the actual site of the old town goes unquestioned. The visitors of the ghost town go there for the sense of history, not the presence of history. The “authentic gunfights,” though few if any gunfights occurred in Goldfield, are more compelling to tourists than the history of gold ore discoveries, booms and busts.

Despite the confusion caused by the competition between commercial interests and the preservation of public memory, the Bluebird stands out as a unique space of place-based vernacular rhetorical expression. By drawing on a variety of regional topoi, the Bluebird accomplishes several rhetorical tasks: it successfully networks itself with the Lost Dutchman’s mine, as well as the reconstructed town of Goldfield. It also attempts to utilize those same topoi as a method for attracting visitors to the Bluebird in order to spread a historical counter-narrative and to engage in public remembering of those interested in the vernacular history of the region including the proprietor. Several installations located in and around the Bluebird form a complex set of associations between the topos of violence and investment, which effectively critiques the business practices that led to the reconstruction of the town of Goldfield on a different site for monetary gain, and the accompanying appropriation of regional memory.

Ultimately however, the Bluebird’s rhetorical actions emphasize that viewers have certain expectations about places such as stores and museums; when the line between spaces with clearly defined roles are crossed, it becomes difficult for viewers to interact with the space and understand their role within it. The Bluebird suffers from such confusion, which detracts from its culturally important challenge to the historical narrative asserted by the nearby reconstructed town. The failure stemming from this confusion also speaks to the need to honour regional and vernacular historical narratives in a more substantive way; without the legitimizing forces of either public or institutional funding and support (as in the case of most state and national museums and parks) or widespread popular cultural awareness and engagement, investors and developers are free to alter vernacular history for their own needs, more often than not in the pursuit of profit. While places such as the Bluebird can be direct regional challenges, the need to preserve and honour vernacular histories and memories extends to many others.

Works Cited

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